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Editor's Note: In this Q & A, ebizQ's Peter Schooff speaks with Derek Miers and Paul Hagen, both principal analysts at Forrester Research, about improving customer service through business processes. Miers and Hagen discuss three keys to achieving an excellent customer experience, how to design customer-friendly processes—and common mistakes to avoid along the way. The Q & A, excerpted from a longer podcast, has been edited for clarity, length and editorial style.

ebizQ: What would you say are the keys to ensuring an excellent customer experience?

The first and most important thing is understanding the customer perspective. It's a nontrivial thing to do.

Most of the work that companies do comes from the company perspective, not the customer perspective. There are things that companies are trying to achieve, whether that's increasing their margin or saving costs or increasing upsells, increasing market share. All those things are important from the company's perspective and can frame a lot of the way they go to market. [But that] also misses the customer perspective. It misses what they're trying to achieve, the goals that they have outside of the company's product and services.

I think just getting into that customer perspective—really having some deep understanding, actually observing customers, talking with them, understanding what they're trying to achieve—is key number one.

Key number two is understanding the kind of experience that you as a company are trying to deliver…Understanding who you are as a company, what differentiates you, why people do business with you, and thinking about the experience from those perspectives, the value proposition to customers, is a key.

The third key is actually designing experiences. Most companies put together a series of business processes that may happen organically over time. They don't actively design the experience that customers have. [Business-to-business] companies are often [the worst] in thinking about what that experience is that they're giving to the complex set of human relationships they have within their client base.

Miers: I'd echo what Paul was saying; I'll probably say it subtly differently. That second [key] I tend to regard as being more about making sure you’ve got a vision for what you're trying to deliver. There's no good in designing a few processes if you haven't really got the vision of the experience you're trying to deliver. So getting into the head of the customer and thinking about the experiences you want to deliver, how you want them to think, how you want them to respond to you, is critical. Of course, then you start designing that experience and making sure that you deliver it every time. That's what your processes should be about.

Very often, and from a process perspective, when people say “I’ve got this process,” what they mean is a proxy for the [organizational] chart…[Instead,] you’ve got to really sit down and say, “Well, what's the intention here?” The intention is to blow our customers’ socks off. By the way, you're not going to get to do that by just copying what the Joneses do. You're not going to read about it in Harvard Business Review or the Financial Times. You're only going to find it out from your customers.

Hagen: I think the idea of blowing your customers socks off is relative to who your customers are in the first place, who's your target customer. Southwest Airlines and Singapore Airlines have very different customer bases with a different set of expectations that they set up for them and, therefore, a different set of experiences that they deliver.

ebizQ: To drill down to business process management, how can business processes then be used to improve customer experience?

Miers: If you think about it, the experience that you deliver is entirely made up of the processes you have, whether they're designed or not. You have processes; you have ways of doing things. [But] you may not have designed them, strangely enough. If you haven't designed them, the experience that you get as a customer is going to be pretty haphazard.

You obviously need to think about how a set of processes--and I’m choosing my words very carefully now--how a set of processes contribute to that experience design that you're looking for. If you don't go about it in that sort of way, then, again, you end up with this sort of functional decomposition view of process where everything belongs to the org chart, rather than the way in in which you deliver value to the customer.

Hagen: At the end of the day, processes exist and you can streamline those processes and make things easier for customers.

Export Development Canada, for example, started looking through the end-to-end financing of the big B2B finance companies that provide bonding for companies doing trade across borders. Their application process was a little bit of a nightmare. When they went through it, they found 100 or more different touch points that crossed over a dozen divisions within the company. In looking at that end-to-end experience, there were [many instances of] lack of visibility and poor handoffs, with an unpredictable amount of time that would take to complete an application and almost no visibility out to the customer.

When they looked through those set of processes, they were able to streamline them to create greater visibility and so forth. But it really was about looking at an end-to-end customer process and then understanding how to streamline processes within that larger customer process.

ebizQ: In essence, the focus should be on the experience and not on the process. So that leads to this question: How fixed or adaptive do these processes need to be?

Miers: I think they need to be very adaptive. In the final analysis, customers are less worried about your procedures than you are. I don't care about my bank's internal processes as long as they don't lose my money. What I care about is that they're on 24/7, that they're available, that they're easy to do business with, that they're not rude to me, all those sorts of things. I don't care about their processes…I'm more interested in the value that they deliver to me.

Hagen: In this world, technology and capabilities for delivering value to customers are changing incredibly rapidly. Customer expectations and what they're doing is changing rapidly.

Most companies are just starting to get their heads around the fact that they can interact with customers within the context of their customers using their products. [For instance,] a forklift has sensors in it. [The company] can interact with the user of that forklift.

What a company can do has to be adaptive to how those customers are using those products. That said, some companies are in commodity-based businesses and they're competing on a low cost. I think those will be less adaptive than, say, a company that's really trying to target customers in a more tailored kind of way.

So there's a little bit of looking at how one competes out there and how you create efficiencies to compete at the low costs. But again, that goes back to your company's strategy and a little bit of what Derek was talking about earlier--that is, what's your vision and what kind of experience are you creating? What kind of expectation are you setting out there in the marketplace? That's going to dictate certainly how adaptive you need to be to meet the needs of customers.

Miers: Let me build on that. In a way, your strategy is about what markets you’re going to be in, where you're going to play, what sort of products you're going to have, and how you think you're going to win.

Then you get to an operating model. What sort of services do we want to deliver, what's the capability do we need to support those so services, and what other processes that need to support those capabilities?

Let’s say at a life-insurance company, there’s a claim because someone has died. It takes you nine calls to actually get your situation resolved. That's not really a good experience. I mean, put it this way: If you had to get on a plane to London and booked your flight nine times, would you want to get on the flight? If you went to a restaurant and had to put your order in nine times, would you want to go back again? Obviously not, right?

Let’s think about the adaptive experience that might go on between me and my bank [in a hypothetical case involving a divorce]. I’m giving them a change of address, I want to set up two trust accounts for my son, I want to close down the joint account, I want to re-factor the mortgage somehow. You can’t tell me that you’ve got one single fixed process to handle all those situations.

The point is you have to start thinking about how you design those experiences and how you build the process to do that.

Hagen: Financial services is an interesting one to look at [because death, divorce, and other life-changing events] are emotional moments for customers. Often times, [processes involved with such events] aren’t efficient because they're in different departments, they're different processes, they’re processes that don’t hang together. In a highly emotional moment, it’s incredibly frustrating trying to get anything done.

Vanguard was looking at when people die, what their loved ones have to go through in terms of consolidating accounts and changing names and so on. The company realized that it was a nightmare for their clients, so they streamlined all of those things. But what was most important when they did that was the kind of feedback they got back from customers: “Thank you for being so understanding. Thank you for being empathetic and understanding my situation and making it easy.” It was as much about the emotional side of things as the process that was important from the customer's perspective.

One of the limitations of looking at business process alone is that [doing so] simply looks at the rational and misses the emotional. We look at three things that companies have to nail in terms of customer experience: It has to deliver the value that a customer expects and wants. It has to be easy. I think those two things are the rational side.

But then it has to be enjoyable or some other proxy for the emotional side, because that's what turns people from simply being satisfied to being advocates for your brand, or evangelists for your brand, which I think is where companies want to be.

Miers: Now I’ll put a little process language on it…In a way, what you’re doing is, you’re looking at the process and you’re designing a set of processes to deliver the outcomes you want. But then you also have to complement that. This is the key point with an emphasis on the behavior of your employees, actually helping them understand their roles and the relationships that they're trying to engender and the ways in which they should deal with their customers.

So in that little scenario when someone's got a life-insurance claim, it's about being empathetic. It's about listening to them and letting them vent a little bit. It's not about how fast can you put the phone down and get onto the next call, because they're not going to thank you for that afterwards.

Hagen: That empathy applies to back-office employees as much or more than front-office employees. If you've got a legal department putting together policies and procedures that are protecting the company at the cost of the customer experience, those people need to see the empathy and see the results of it. Oftentimes, people look at customer experience as the responsibility of the call-center people on the front lines. Really, those are just simply the messengers for other people who create horrible experiences.

[BPM often begins in the back office]. The BPM group or continuous improvement group is reporting up through a COO or CFO; they rarely have contact with customers or understand kind of the implications of what some of those back-office processes have on the agents delivering the customer experience and on the customers themselves.

ebizQ: What are some of the key business process mistakes that you've seen companies make around customer experience?

Miers: They forget the fact that they're delivering an experience and they focus too much on efficiency.

Hagen: I would echo that. I would say the biggest mistake is framing problems based on internal needs rather than on customer needs. Hand-in-hand with that is looking at a siloed process, or set of processes, and not understanding what the customer process is or the customer journey. If you haven't looked at the customer journey, then you can make a credit-risk process incredibly efficient internally, but when a customer is going to through a mortgage process, who cares that that is super-efficient?

Miers: How we engage people on this journey is part of the problem. It’s a bit like this: Say you went to a middle-ranking manager inside your average large company and asked, “Are your processes good enough? Are they fit for your purposes?” They will always answer that question “Yes.”

On the other hand, if you went to that same person, never mentioned process and said, “Do you think we deliver the best possible outcomes that our customers might want?” The answer is invariably “No.” [If you then ask,] “Do you think we should aspire to?” The answer is “Yes.” [And if you ask,] “Would you come on a journey with me to make that happen?” The answer is “Yes.”

You don't even need to mention process, because they're going to come back to you five minutes later, holding your feet to the fire, saying “We really have to improve this process!” It’s the way in which you get people to think about the problem.

The reality is that nine out of ten people couldn't give a rat’s whatever for efficiency. But those same nine out of ten people really do care about the outcomes they deliver to their customers--and they very seldom get the chance to frame it like that.

READER FEEDBACK: Have you used BPM to enhance customer experience at your organization? If so, ebizQ editors would like to hear about your experience. Contact Site Editor Anne Stuart at editor@ebizq.net.

About the Author

Peter Schooff is a former contributing editor for ebizQ, where he also managed the ebizQ Forum for several years. Previously, Peter managed the database operations for a major cigar company, served as writer/editor of an early Internet entertainment site and developed a computer accounting system for several retail stores. Peter can be reached at pschooff@techtarget.com.

More by Peter Schooff

About ebizQ

ebizQ is the insider’s guide to next-generation business process management. We offer a growing collection of independent editorial articles on BPM trends, issues, challenges and solutions, all targeted to business and IT BPM professionals.

We cover BPM standards, governance, technology and continuous process improvement, as well as process discovery, modeling, simulation and optimization, among many other areas. We follow case management, decision management, business rules management, operational intelligence, complex event processing and other related topics. We closely track important trends such as the rise of social BPM, mobile BPM and BPM in the cloud. We also explore BPM’s use in functional areas, such as supply chain and customer management, and in key verticals, such as financial services, health care, insurance and government.

ebizQ's other BPM-oriented content includes podcasts, webcasts, webinars, white papers, a variety of expert blogs, a lively online forum and much more.



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